01 Art Choral 4Art Choral Vol. 4 – Classique
Ensemble ArtChoral; Matthias Maute; Ilya Poletaev
ATMA ACD2 2423 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Some choirs and their musical projects have clearly defined areas of focus. Others, such as Ensemble ArtChoral, directed by Matthias Maute, think bigger: the ArtChoral series is a unique and ambitious three-year, 11-volume project surveying the history of choral singing over six centuries, from the Renaissance to the present day. Classique, the fourth release in the series, focuses on the Classical era and contains music by Gasparini, Bierey, Haydn and Mozart, accompanied by fortepianist Ilya Poletaev. 

Much of the music on this disc was composed for liturgical use, including Johann Michael Haydn’s Agnus Dei, Bierey’s Kyrie (which is based on the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” piano sonata) and Mozart’s ubiquitous Ave Verum Corpus, as well as a set of fascinating vocal trios and quartets by Franz Joseph Haydn. This thoughtful programming provides a convincing overview of the era’s styles and sounds through smaller forms, at a time when much of the choral music being composed was large scale, such as the masses and oratorios of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Ensemble ArtChoral is in fine form throughout, and their skillful approach to this music is apparent from the first notes. Using the fortepiano as the sole source of accompaniment is a thought-provoking choice, with its unique timbre and relatively inflexible dynamic range leading to an increased attention toward expressive boundaries; the listener must reorient themselves to understand that, while they are still hearing the juxtaposition of fortes and pianos, the extremes are less pronounced than might be expected from performances with modern instruments.

It is a monumental task to summarize six centuries of anything, let alone such a vast expanse of composers and their music; Ensemble ArtChoral continues to prove that they are up to the challenge with Classique.

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02 At First LightAt First Light
Exultate Chamber Singers
Independent (exultate.net)

One of Canada’s top chamber choirs, the Exultate Chamber Singers is a Toronto-based ensemble dedicated to showcasing new Canadian choral music through commissioning and programming. While there are some who consider all music of the 20th century to be contemporary, Exultate commits itself to music that is truly contemporary, as demonstrated with their recent recording At First Light.

Consisting of eight works written by Canadian composers between 2018 and 2021 – seven of which were commissioned by Exultate – At First Light provides a glimpse into some of the wonderful music being written by both emerging and established composers in our country. There is a wide range of compositional diversity here, with texts taken from many sources including Malay lyricist Mohamad Fairuz bin Mohamad Tauhid, the Lebanese-American Kahlil Gibran, as well as Shakespeare and Yeats, set by an equally diverse range of composers.

Unlike the “modernist” music of Schoenberg and Stockhausen, this modern music is largely tonal, with a freedom of technique and expression that has been gathered and distilled from centuries of musical history and returned to its listeners in new, creative forms. Ethereal harmonic textures are the primary musical vernacular here, but each composer’s individual approach ensures that each work is unique unto itself. Whether Matthew Emery’s brief yet profound Be Still, My Heart, Mari Alice Conrad’s atmospheric At First Light, or the rhythmically delightful Speak to Us of Joy by Ecuadorian Canadian Sami Anguaya, there is a variety of styles and techniques on display which provide a distinctively wide-ranging and satisfying listening experience from beginning to end.

A robust and enthusiastic exposition of contemporary Canadian content, Exultate’s At First Light reminds us that there is much to celebrate here at home with regards to classical music. Although its death has been signaled many times over the last half-century, the presence of such gifted composers and interpreters indicates that there is indeed a future for this genre that will be defined not by survival, but rather by successes yet unimagined.

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03 Folly of DesireThe Folly of Desire
Ian Bostridge; Brad Mehldau
Pentatone PTC 5187 035 (pentatonemusic.com)

Since his emergence onto the international jazz scene in the early 1990s, Brad Mehldau’s evolution as a gifted, inspired artist has been nothing but breathtaking. In addition to his now legendary jazz piano chops, Mehldau has explored and extended himself into many music modalities, and with his new release, created in tandem with noted tenor vocalist and musical interpreter, Ian Bostridge, Mehldau straddles several genres here in a bewitching sojourn into this powerful song cycle that plumbs the limits of sexual freedom in a post-#MeToo political age. Taking inspiration from the poetry of Blake, Yeats, Shakespeare, Brecht, Goethe and Cummings, this 16-track, diverse program also includes jazz standards and a foray into German Lieder.

First up is The Sick Rose – languid and gossamer, Bostridge’s rich tenor encircles the potent poetry of William Blake, while Mehldau weaves a world of fog and delight through his pianistic/artistic skill. Leda and the Swan is a central theme of this song cycle, and is drawn from a Greek myth, while the text comes from Yeats, and depicts a brutal rape – the denying of free will and transfiguration of a false god for venal pleasure. Mehldau rides the roller coaster of emotion and crashes into Yeats’ deepest meaning. A highlight of the cycle is the boys I mean are not refined. The poetry of ee cummings takes a jaundiced look at amoral young men. While Mehldau again creates a profound mood and, through his incomparable vocal instrument, Bostridge wrings every last bit of meaning out of the disturbing text. A triumph of artistic sensibility and skill. 

Of special, luminous beauty are the duo’s take on These Foolish Things, and the rarely performed gem, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. The almost unbearable beauty of Mehldau’s piano is evident throughout, and he remains one of the most profound and original artists of his (or any) time.

04 Gayle YoungGayle Young – According to the Moon
Sarah Albu; Gayle Young
farpoint recordings fp088 (farpointrecordings.com)

Southern Ontario musician, composer, experimental instrument maker and author Gayle Young (b.1950) has been continually active since the 1970s, though it feels like recognition of her music has ramped up in the last decade. Last year’s release, As Trees Grow featured piano-centred compositions infused with field recordings of natural sounds. 

Her latest seven-track album According to the Moon, subtitled “Sarah Albu performs vocal works by Gayle Young, 1978-2021” showcases the human voice in its manifold guises. These range from extended voice techniques, spoken word and sprechstimme to classical singing and everything in between. In some works Young appears to invite Montreal-based Albu to shape her virtuoso performances on the formants and rhythms of spoken language.

In the evocative Ancient Ocean Floor (2021) the voice is supported by a field recording of a waterfall filtered through resonant tubes. The texture is further enriched by Young’s nuanced performance on the amaranth, a bowed koto-like instrument with flexible tuning of her own design.

Albu’s vocalism in Tea Story (2012) is selectively emphasized by electronic resonance filters and frequency shifters. And in Vio-Voi (1978) Geneviève Liboiron’s violin plays an effective counterpoint with Albu’s controlled soprano, demonstrating the significant role of instruments in this ostensibly vocal album.

Young’s serious maverick/experimental composer street cred is rooted in her teachers’ musical family tree which reaches back to Harry Partch, Charles Ives and beyond. The mature, sometimes challenging, works spanning four decades presented on According to the Moon amply underscore the aesthetic consistency and longevity of Young’s artistic vision and achievement.

05 RoomFullOfTeethRough Magic
Roomful of Teeth
New Amsterdam NWAM172 (roomfulofteeth.org)

One of the fiercest contemporary proponents of pushing the boundaries of the human voice, this group is beyond sole creativity; the level of skill and musicianship of the Grammy-winning vocal supergroup Roomful of Teeth demonstrates a cohesiveness only possible within a collective of beings who know each other very, very well. Rough Magic features premiere recordings of four works co-created with the group and simply explodes out of the gate.

From the very opening of William Britelle’s Psychedelics 1. Deep Blue (You Beat Me) the traditional harmonies are bursting with tones, lyrics and extended techniques that draw you into a world of vocal sound and texture that unless you are familiar with this premier contemporary vocal group you will likely have never heard before. In three movements, the piece explores what the composer notes as “an attempt…to reckon with a psychological breakdown that I experienced as a young adult, and to parallel that with the seemingly apocalyptic strains of our current collective state…” The movements Deep Blue (You Beat Me), I am the Watchtower and My Apothecary Light include cultural references thrown about which beautifully illustrate the chaos of memory and time.

For the opening of Eve Beglarian’s None More Than You, the composer asked the ensemble “to try to utter the most famous text about words in Western culture, the opening of the Gospel of John, using only consonants,” a fascinating opening that evolves to colours of crystalline traditional harmonies unbound and include pressure breathing that was felt throughout. Caroline Shaw’s five-movement work The Isle references Shakespeare’s stage direction in The Tempest, and makes beautiful use of Shaw’s trademark murmurs, audible breaths and shifting timbres imbuing recitations of text. Peter S. Shin’s Bits Torn From Words is simply stunning, a brilliant and vivid painting of the mental health condition of generalized anxiety disorder, painfully manifested with tentative, wavering, quivering and passionate lyrics. The composer includes the use of Korean tradition of p’ansori, a vocal technique which needs expert care to avoid vocal damage. The movement Reach Across Oceans was my favourite track of the album. 

The imaginative, playful photos and thoughtful artwork are an artful introduction to the group, and if you have a chance to look up the short video demos to several of the pieces (available on the group’s website via Vimeo) you will be rewarded with the most enjoyable micro-sized films that really blossom with the textures and lyrics. With this album Roomful of Teeth has broken even their own boundaries; this is truly a contemporary vocal ensemble whose ferocious attitude defies its delicate balance with dedication to excellence. Hold on to your hats and enjoy exploring this fantastic recording.

01 Antonio FigueroaCanciones de mi abuelito
Antonio Figuero; La Familia Figueroa
ATMA ACD2 2856 (atmaclassique.com/en)

This recording is a master work, created in celebration of the paternal Figueroa Grandfather (Don José Figueroa), through the veil of the potent 1950s/1960s “Golden Age” of Mexican music composed by noted 20th-century Mexican composers. Featuring the vocal work of dynamic tenor Antonio Figueroa, the talented Figueroa family performs on a variety of instruments throughout and includes Anton Virquis on voice/violins; Esteban Duran on voice/violin and arrangements; Tomy Figueroa on voice/trumpet; Manuel Figueroa on vihuela (he’s also artistic adviser); José-Luis Figueroa on voice/guitar; Alexandre Figueroa on voice/guitarron and José Figueroa on voice. Grandfather José first visited Canada as a performing mariachi during Expo 1967, and eventually emigrated to Montreal with his 11 children, beginning a thrilling cross-cultural relationship. It wasn’t long before Mariachi Figueroa became a family business.

Mariachi music and particularly the “Cancion Ranchera” is an emotional genre by which Mexicans express the raw pain of a broken heart. The stirring opener, Paloma Querida (José Alfredo Jiménez) features Antonio’s superb, limitless and communicative tenor. Every track here is a cultural and musical gem – rendered with authenticity and skill. Highlights include the lithesome Martha (Mosés Simóns), Dime Que Si (Alfonso Esparza Oteo) with supple trumpet and violin work, El Pastor (Los Cuates Castilla) with its gymnastic, stratospheric melodic line brilliantly negotiated by Antonio and Diez Años (Raphael Hernandez) a stunningly arranged gem of Musica Mexicana. The closer of this compelling collection, Ojos Tapatios (Jose F. Elizondo & F. Menendez) is an exceptional and deeply moving example of authentic Mexican music – performed to perfection by the entire ensemble.

02 Bach MotetsBach – Six Motets
Ottawa Bach Choir; Lisette Canton
ATMA ACD2 2836 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Founded in 2002 by Dr. Lisette Canton, the Juno Award-winning Ottawa Bach Choir (OBC) is an ensemble which specializes in the performance of early music, with a particular emphasis on the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Their latest release, titled Six Motets, is a monumental effort featuring Bach’s choral motets, noted for their complexity, profundity and breathtaking beauty.

This recording begins with a thrilling rendition of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV225, which launches at breakneck speed through passages of virtuosic counterpoint and driving rhythmic patterns, eases into a luxurious aria and returns with fiery energy for the conclusion. Such focus on rhythm and clarity is a defining feature of this entire disc, which brings Bach’s music to life in an illuminative and vital way.

Perhaps the most exceptional excerpt of OBC’s Six Motets is the monolithic Jesu, meine Freude BWV227, an 11-movement work for five-part chorus that spans a tremendous range of moods and affects. Here the choir offers a masterclass in precision and execution, but never at the expense of musicality. The opening chorale is well-paced, expertly phrased and subtly expressive, the devilish “Trotz dem alten Drachen” is one of the best this reviewer has encountered, and the lyrical “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” is hauntingly beautiful.

In a market saturated with recordings of Bach’s famous motets, it could be challenging to rationalize yet another addition to the catalogue, yet this effort from the OBC holds its own as one of the finest on record. There is not a weak point present and, whether familiar or not with these legendary works, Six Motets is highly recommended listening for all.

03 A Left CoastA Left Coast (A Heartfelt Playlist from British Columbia)
Tyler Duncan; Erika Switzer
Bridge Records 9574 (bridgerecords.com)

In their booklet notes, baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer, both B.C.-born, call this CD “our heartfelt playlist for the place we will always call home: British Columbia.” The “playlist,” drawn from seven of their B.C. “friends and colleagues,” begins with two songs by Iman Habibi, set to Edward FitzGerald’s translations of two quatrains by Omar Khayyam. The vocal lines are earnest and emphatic, the piano parts flavoured with hints of Persian exoticism.

Jean Coulthard’s Three Love Songs are appropriately edgy and irritable, as they’re set to poems from Louis MacKay’s collection, The Ill-Tempered Lover. In three highly dramatic songs, Jocelyn Morlock’s Involuntary Love Songs, with verses by Alan Ashton, traces the narrator’s development of love from repression through turmoiled denial to blissful, sensual ecstasy.

Melancholy lyricism infuses Melissa Hui’s song Snowflakes (poem by Longfellow) and Leslie Uyeda’s Plato’s Angel, four songs set to what Uyeda calls “some of the most introspective” poems by Lorna Crozier but, writes Uyeda, “I do not mean them to be depressing!” (They’re not.) For real depression, listen to Jeffrey Ryan’s Everything Already Lost, commissioned by Duncan and Switzer. Ryan’s sombre music matches the gloomy moods of four poems by Jan Zwicky, with repeated references to “night” and “darkness.”

Stephen Chatman’s very pretty Something like that, one of a set of Eight Love Songs written for Duncan, injects some welcome, warm sunshine into this CD’s ever-looming storm clouds. Is B.C. weather always like this?

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01 Duo OrianaHow Like a Golden Dream
Duo Oriana
Leaf Music LM264 (leaf-music.ca) 

The repertoire on How Like a Golden Dream traverses the sacred and the secular; 17th-century hymns and antiphons from the Office of Hours, sung at Vespers and Compline in monasteries and Irish folk songs influenced by Celtic missionaries. Throughout, the luminous soprano of Sinéad White illuminates the long shadows of dusk and night. Jonathan Stuchbery adds energizing precision. With both lute and theorbo he serves White with silvery gusts of harmonic colours.  

Familiar melodies such as ‘Tis now dead night by John Corprario, Come, Heavy Sleep by John Dowland and Never weather-beaten sail by Thomas Campion are made to float weightlessly by White. Meanwhile Stuchbery weaves his instruments in and out turning poetic lines into a sort of diaphanous harmonic quilt that quiets the imaginary fears of the night. Louise Hung’s glorious textures on the organ are subtly, yet appropriately expressive when added to the music.

The plaintive sound world of sacred and secular polyphony not only evokes a sense of wistful melancholy, but also lifts the listener from grief and sadness to unfettered joy and hope of salvation in the celestial realm. This is superbly evoked by two closing hymns by Francesca Cassini: Te lucis ante terminum and the deeply expressive Regina Caeli. Booklet notes with richly referential song-by-song English and French commentary by Jill Rafuse and Pierre Igot deserve special mention as part of the excellence of this production.

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